Kelly Bender: Coordinator of Campus and Community
Alcohol Harm Reduction Initiatives
Kelly Bender remembers her “light bulb moment.” That moment when she gained a new understanding about risky alcohol use.
“I was exploring the messages we’re getting from the community about what’s normal and what’s expected when it comes to drinking…and it clicked. Our personal health choices, even if they’re risky to us—even if we KNOW they’re risky to us—they seem normal because of our
environment,” Bender says. “No amount of educating young people about the risks and consequences of drinking too much will change their habits if the community is telling them, ‘Drinking is going to make you socially acceptable and successful.’ This is the message that young people are getting. And it’s not been healthy for them.”
Bender is passionate about working toward changing those messages and redefining “normal.” In August, she became the university’s first coordinator of campus and community alcohol harm reduction initiatives.
Your position was created just this summer. Can you give
us a brief overview of your job?
I break it up in my mind into two parts. The university has an internal Alcohol Harm Reduction Plan (available at dos.uiowa.edu/assets/plan.pdf) and I coordinate that. The plan involves several goals, lots of different strategies within those goals, and multiple departments across campus.
The other part of my job is to coordinate the Partnership for Alcohol Safety (www.alcoholpartnership.org). That’s a coalition I was a part of before I came to this position. It’s important to connect the city and the university in this effort because they are not separate in this community.
How do you respond to people who doubt that it’s possible to change the culture of drinking among college students?
I respond with the total understanding of that point of view. Because it is an enormous task. There are all sorts of factors involved. An issue like alcohol is not simple. It’s not good or bad, yes or no. It’s about finding a balance.
In many ways, drinking to the point of intoxication has become normalized. We need to make getting drunk less socially acceptable.
While tobacco is a very different issue because there is not a low-risk way to use tobacco, it is an example of cultural change. Today, it’s just unthinkable that someone would smoke in a hospital or on an airplane. But there was a time when that was normal, and it was unthinkable to change it.
Why the focus on “alcohol harm reduction” and “alcohol
safety,” rather than telling students “Don’t drink.”?
Part of it is communicating a message that’s going to be received a little bit better. The total abstinence message doesn’t feel realistic to a lot of people.
Some people say, “Why are you focusing on underage drinking when it’s really excessive drinking that’s the problem?” They’re really not separate issues at all. As a group, underage drinkers are high-risk drinkers. Eighteen- to 20-year-olds have among the highest high-risk drinking rates of any age group. When they drink, they’re not going out for a beer. They’re drinking in order to get drunk. They’re drinking very quickly, and they’re drinking large amounts of alcohol.
How can parents encourage responsible alcohol use?
It’s important that you’re consistent in your expectations around your student’s alcohol use. If you decide your expectation is that they don’t drink until they’re 21, that’s OK to say. Very well-intentioned adults think they’re connecting with reality when they say to a young person, “I know you’re going to do it anyway….” but what they’re really doing is creating and reinforcing that social norm that drinking and getting drunk is what’s expected, and that a young person who doesn’t conform that norm is going to be left out.
You can also help by modeling using alcohol in a low-risk way